New Izaak Walton Inn Owners Field Questions and Concerns at Essex Town Hall

Weeks after purchasing the historic lodge on the southern edge of Glacier National Park, Washington-based LOGE Camps met with residents to dispel rumors and lay out plans

By Tristan Scott
The Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. Beacon file photo

ESSEX — For weeks the specter of change has loomed over this cloistered community on the southern edge of Glacier National Park, where an out-of-state hospitality company last month purchased the historic Izaak Walton Inn, triggering a torrent of speculation — High-rise condominiums? Time shares catering to wealthy visitors? A new private glamping resort?

“Did you hear the one about how we’re going to turn it into a nudist colony? I liked that one,” said Slate Olson, head of marketing for the Washington-based LOGE Camps, whose purchase of the historic lodge late last year prompted a fount of colorful rumors to percolate through the Middle Fork Flathead River corridor.

And while LOGE bills itself as specializing in “finding forgotten motels and bringing them back to life,” Olson assured about 75 Essex residents who gathered inside the Izaak Walton Inn’s pavilion on a recent January evening they need not worry about an “overhaul” of the beloved property, though he admits LOGE’s plans for renovation are still evolving.

“We didn’t buy this place to turn it into a Marriott,” Olson said at a Jan. 25 town hall organized by the company, which feted its new neighbors with cookies and craft beer. “Our intention is to look at ways we can restore and modernize but not necessarily change. There will be upgrades and improvements so that people can hopefully enjoy this Inn for another 90 years and beyond.”

“But yeah, it would be great if the heaters worked in the guest rooms,” Olson added, which drew knowing groans from locals.

Initially, the company will focus on renovating the three-story Inn’s interior, including its guest rooms, restaurant and bar. To accomplish that, the property will be closed to the public for the upcoming summer beginning on Memorial Day. But much of the exterior upgrades will be minor, including a new paint job. And some of the ancillary properties that former Izaak Walton owner Brian Kelly acquired will be liquidated, including the Halfway Hotel in Essex, which will be listed this week.

“There will be a bit of a disruption this summer, but after that we plan to be open year-round,” Olson said.

Built in 1939, the Izaak Walton Inn remains one of the few hotels that is open year-round near the park, making it a popular destination in the winter as well as during the summer months. Located halfway between West Glacier and East Glacier Park, the Izaak Walton has even earned a nickname over the years: “the inn between.” Unlike the east and west sides of the park — which can be overwhelmed with visitors during the busy summer months — Essex is a quiet oasis, with most of the wintertime traffic generated by skiers.

Nordic skiing will still be a focus under LOGE ownership, said Steve Galletta, the new general manager, who explained that the plans to improve the outmoded lodging accommodations while serving a broader segment of the outdoor-recreation community won’t necessarily result in tangible increases to traffic. The goal, he said, is to conform to the character of the local community.

“These decisions weren’t made in some big office building in Seattle. We’re definitely doing our own due diligence to offer the best experience for this community,” Gannetta said. “We’re really trying to expand access and usability without being a disruption to our neighbors.”

“We have no interest in real estate or investment properties. We want to be good stewards not only of the land but of the community,” added Matthew Beehler, regional vice president of Columbia Property, with whom LOGE has a property management contract. “This place is more than enough.”

The LOGE aesthetic might mean that Pendleton blankets replace the Inn’s polyester bedspreads, which are of a questionable vintage. The dorm-room mini-fridges and kitchenettes will likely be swapped out for Yeti coolers and Traeger grills. And the fleet of rental gear will get an inventory upgrade.

“We want to see our guests come back from their activities dirty and tired, and we want them to unwind in comfort,” Olson said.

Pronounced “Lodge,” LOGE is an acronym for “Live Outside, Go Explore,” Olson explained. With properties in Washington, Oregon, and California, the company offers traditional hotel rooms, hostel bunks, and campsites at its various locations, as well as gear rentals, and it facilitates tours and guided experiences. Its mission, Olson said, is to “find forgotten motels near our favorite towns and trails, and bring them back to life.”

“We’re not a big company but we have big ambitions to open up the outdoors,” Olson said. “We want the outdoors to be available to everyone. We think that adventure is available 3-6-5.”

For Ken Johnson, who’s lived in Essex for 50 years and has witnessed firsthand the spike in demand for outdoor recreation, that raises concerns. How, he wondered, would opening up recreation to everyone, every day, during every season, affect wildlife species like grizzly bears and elk, Canada lynx and wolverine? For skiers, hikers and bikers, the Izaak Walton Inn’s 100-acre property is already a popular launch point into adjacent public lands, including the Great Bear Wilderness, where biking and other means of “mechanical transport” are prohibited. Even so, Johnson speculated that the area could gain popularity after the upgrades and rebranding is complete on the LOGE property.

“That’s my only issue, is what kind of pressure this will add on these sensitive species,” Johnson said. “We’re right on the wilderness boundary.”

Another neighbor, Zach Rutt, wondered whether the company had plans to expand the network of mountain biking trails on the property, and whether it had concerns about Traeger grill drippings attracting bears.

For his part, Olson said he sees the purchase of the Izaak Walton Inn as an opportunity for LOGE to partner with local outfitters and guides to improve outreach and education to recreate responsibly. The company is also committed to its employees and is sensitive to the workforce housing scarcity roiling mountain towns, Olson said, noting that LOGE recently sold a 38-unit hotel in Breckenridge, Colo., to the city at a discounted price so that officials could convert it into workforce housing.

Along those lines, LOGE intends to furnish its staff members with on-site housing.

Olson also pledged that the LOGE leadership team will keep neighbors up to speed on any developments as they occur, and as the plans become more concrete.

“This is day one of being open and transparent,” he said. “We also know the community is going to keep us honest.”

For the most part, the town-hall style meeting seemed to quell the concerns of neighbors. At least for now.

“First of all, welcome to the neighborhood. All the rumors last summer were pretty unnerving,” said Doug Bonham, who lives a stone’s throw away from the pavilion. “I hope you’re true to the mission you seem to promote on your website. It’s easy to love Essex. I trust that you will also protect it.”